Northern Exposure: Arca Joins Boro Pyramid Stars

JULIO Arca has joined South Shields to fill his Saturday football vacuum with the delights of the Northern League.

The former Boro midfielder, now 34, has kept himself fit after hanging up his boots by paying his £3.50 a week subs and playing with his mates at Willow Pond FC in the second division of the Wearside Sunday League.  Now the likeable Argentine aims to step up a gear and “still do a job” in the Northern League second division with South Shields and could make his Mariners debut on Saturday at home to Stokesley.

It will be his first game in English’s football’s pyramid since he bowed out at Boro in a 3-1 Capital One Cup win at Preston in September 2012.  A persistent toe injury ended his professional career after 185 appearances and nine goals for Boro in six seasons following a £2.5m switch from Sunderland.

But he isn’t the only former first teamer to step down from playing pro to turn out in the Northern League.  It used to be a time honoured route for Boro stars to wind down their careers in the Northern League after a season or so at Darlington or Hartlepool.


Pyramid Spelling: Arca joins a list of Boro stars who had a stint in the Northern League

A spell in the second oldest football league in the world was a kind of cultural slow decompression to stop them getting “the bends” after living inside the professional bubble for all their adult lives.

Of course, the Northern League is peppered with dozens of “ex-Boro players” – but these days that generally means lads who left the Academy without a sniff of a first team place.

But there was a time when former first teamers with hundreds of games under their belt – household names on Teesside – made the move, with the likes of David Mills, Bernie Slaven, Terry Cochrane, Gordon Jones and John Hickton among them.

In more recent times players like Nicky Mohan, Anthony Ormerod and Mark Summerbell have “still done a job” at a ground near you.

A host of others who were only fringe figures at Boro found their level and became Northern League champions with the likes of Bobby Scaife, David Shearer, Andy Fletcher and Mitch Cook all big names.

And plenty big names have been signed up as managers by clubs looking to harness their experience and aura with the lies of Peter Creamer (Whitby), Stan Cummins (Norton), Andy McCreesh (Norton), Archie Stephens (Northallerton), Jamie Pollock (Spennymoor) and more recently Andy Campbell (Norton) all cutting their boss teeth in the Northern League.


              Stan Cummins – former future million pound player pitchside at Norton
We’ll look at some the players later but first let’s look at some of the attractions.

Firstly there was the logistics. Back in the day – cue Hovis music and misty eyed nostalgia for the ‘O’ bus – players did not move around so readily and Boro’s squad tended to either be fairly local or to have got married and put down roots after five or six years at Ayresome Park. They weren’t go to up sticks to take a one year deal at Newport or Exeter at the tail end of their career.

Second there wasn’t a yawning financial gap between the pro game and the top levels of non-league football.  Yes, in the sixties, seventies and eighties Boro players  were probably a fair bit better off than ordinary workers – but there wasn’t the incomprehensible abyss of today, even when they were in the top flight.  That’s why they lived in Marton or Linthorpe or  Acklam rather than gold plated mansions in Harrogate.

Football wages were relatively good but if wasn’t the plutarch’s income of today. They  still needed to earn a living on retirement, especially if they hadn’t made a big money move. Which is why they all bought newsagent or became mein host in a pub rather than living off their investments and enjoying a permanent golf holiday.

So in that landscape, having taken a big pay cut from maybe £300-400 a week when the average wage was £200 the chance of earning £100 a week playing for Whitby or Guisborough  while still holding down a real 9-to-5 in insurance or running a sports shop ad an appeal that wouldn’t register with today’s millionaires.

And, it must be said, the Northern League was a very high standard of football then. It has slowly slipped down to step five in the pyramid now but before the national non-league reshuffle in the eighties left it politically and geographically isolated, it was among the top two or three leagues outside the professonal game.

Blyth Spartans reaching the FA Cup 5th round wasn’t a freak. Synthonia reached the first round proper twice in the 80s. Whitby even got to the second round in the nineties. Guisborough Town and South Bank both played in the first round proper to big crowds at Ayresome Park in between.

In the past pro clubs even signed players direct from the Northern League. Boro legends Brian Clough was at Billingham Sythonia before he joined Boro and Gary Pallister was at Billingham Town while Newcastle’s Chris Waddle started at Tow Law.  There was a lot of real talent in the league  – and a lot of the best were happy to stay there.

Back then Top Northern League players who had a day job could earn a decent crust so would often turn down lower division pro clubs offering similar or less money for the joys of a short term deal, insecurity and the dubious pleasures of living in Halifax or Aldershot.

So it wasn’t a massive step down from the pro game.  It was still a challenge for athletes with a competitive edge.  Plus, it was a chance to taste the matchday buzz, to be part of the camaraderie and the dressing room banter for people who knew little else.

So, you can see the attractions for former footballers.  And that includes some very big names with hundreds of pro games under their belt. Here’s a few.


            Poisoned chalice: TC breezes in for an ill-fated spell as South Bank boss

TERRY COCHRANE – the tricky winger had a colourful post-Boro career with spells in Hong Kong playing under Bobby Moore and in the US with Dallas before a fleeting stop in Hartlepool and then into the Northern League.

He had a good season at rising power Billingham Synthonia as they got all the way into the FA Cup first round proper before being squeezed out 1-0 to a penalty in November 1989.

He then took the poisoned chalice of the player-manager’s job of South Bank as the arson hit club slipped into crisis, relegation and homelessness. He battled on as player-boss through spells ground-sharing at Guisborough and then Ferryhill before the club – one of the oldest in the country having being founded in 1868 – finally folded after a last day 7-0 thumping by champions Whitby

He later also managed Ferryhill while still playing in the Wearside and Teesside League and was still playing Sunday football with the Navigation at the age of 46.

BERNIE SLAVEN – the Glaswegian goal machine had to quit the pro game at Darlington after a back injury – but that couldn’t stop him scoring.

Bernie signed up for Billingham Synthonia in 1998 and over two seasons banged in 22 goals in 19 starts and two appearance from the bench – which isn’t bad – before a fixture clash with his microphone duties forced him to call time.


                                        Sheeky Shearer strikes for Synthonia
DAVID SHEARER – hard working front man Sheeky Shearer played at Grimsby and Darlington after leaving Boro then joined Synners in 1988 for a four year spell that included their big FA Cup adventures and two championship wins.

Scot Shearer – whose brother Duncan also played English league football – got a healthy 46 goals in 110 games.

ALEX SMITH – Billingham-born tough tackling right-back left Boro to become player-boss of Bangor City before rejoining the pro-ranks for a spell with Darlington in 1974.

After that he joined newly founded Guisborough Town as player-coach and was a fixture as the side reached Wembley in the FA Vase final in 1980 only to lose to Stamford.

He was later assistant to ex-Boro team-mate Peter Creamer at Evenwood before rejoining Boro as kit manager in 1996.

BOBBY SCAIFE – the midfield man never quite broke into the Boro first team but Scaife is a Northern League legend, being involved as player or manager in over 1,000 games and winning the title with both Whitby and Dunston.

After leaving Boro he played at Hartlepool and Rochdale then joined Whitby, where his dad was chairman. He also played for Guisborough and South Bank before starting his dug-out career back at Whitby.

DAVID MILLS – the one time most expensive player in English football (he made a record £500,000 move from Boro to West Brom in 1979) finished his career back at home town club Whitby after signing for ex-Ayresome colleague Peter Creamer in 1986.

He was Town’s Mr Versatile – not only did the ex-striker end up pulling strings from defence but he was also a coach and the club’s commercial manager.

His spell there was ended by his tragic Tyne Tunnel car accident in which his father was killed as he returned from watching a game while out injured in December 1987.

ANDY FLETCHER – the Boro second string hotshot and part of the 1990 FA Youth Cup runners-up never made it into the senior side – but he became a Northern League goal-machine. The ‘handy’ Alan Shearer of the Northern League  who helped fire three different clubs to the title: Synthonia, Bedlington and Dunston.

MITCH COOK – the left sided midfielder only played a handful of games at Boro under Willie Maddren before leaving for first Scarborough then Whitby where he was part of the the side that did a Northern League and FA Vase Wembley winning double in 1997.

STEVE CORDEN – a full-back who made his debut aged 18 on the same day as Gary Pallister in 1985 – and promptly broke his leg, an injury that ended his pro career.

But Corden – whose dad Dick was a Boro director then later Darlington chairman – had a successful spell at Whitby playing as an energetic midfielder where he won the title. Then he  switched to Guisborough where he helped the Priorymen reach the 1997 FA Vase semi-final and then was later manager at the KGV.

RAY HANKIN – striker Ray Hankin was sent off on his debut for Boro at the start of a poor spell as his career started to wind down. He was later also sent off at Ayresome Park for refusing to wear the captain’s armband when playing for Guisborough in a bad tempered  FA Cup first round 1-0 defeat to Bury.

Mentioned in despatches…

Curtis Fleming and Craig Hignett (cameos at Synthonia); Lee Tucker (played for Guisborough, coached Billingham Town and Synthonia); Mick Angus (Synners then transferred to the police); Gordon Jones (player-coach at Crook); Owen McGee (Guisborough, Bishop Auckland and Thornaby) Charlie Bell (player and boss at Marske); John Hickton (woumd down at Whitby); Garry Macdonald (succesful spell at South Bank); Ian Gibson (Whitby and Guisborough); Nicky Mohan (Bishop Auckland and Thornaby); Anthony Ormerod (Whitby and Marske); Colin Ross (South Bank and Whitby); Archie Stephens (player-boss at Northallerton); Colin Blackburn (Shildon); Mark Summerbell (Spennymoor, Chester-le-Street); Ted Coleman (Wembley finalist with Guisborough); and as they say on the compilation albums, many, many more…


30 thoughts on “Northern Exposure: Arca Joins Boro Pyramid Stars

  1. Another great piece AV, I had an Uncle who played in the Northern League for South Bank. I had no idea it was such a high standard of football.

    **AV writes: Yes it was a top, top league. NL sides dominated the old FA Amateur Cup for decades up until the early 60s.

  2. It’s a shame that the old Football League made it so hard for teams to get in. I can remember when the arrival of a new team in Division 4 was a huge event. These days supporters from anywhere can dream of their team rising league after league until they hit the big tine.

    I was actually looking at the National League and saw that Forest Green – who I had never heard of – are still 100% after 8 games. Another fairy tale in the making?

    Personally, I’m quite looking forward to the first game between MK Dons and AFC Wimbledon. That’ll be something.

    Anyway, roll on Saturday. The real thing back at last.


    **AV writes: They have actually already met twice in cups last season. The Franchise won 3-1 in the League Cup and Real Wimbledon won 3-2 in the Johnstones’ Paint Trophy.

  3. In the 70’s, our PE teacher also played for Bishop Auckland, Peter Storey was his name if I recall. The North of England has a fascinating history.

  4. I can justremember seeing FA Amateur Cup finals on the TV in glorious B&W, teams like Bishop Auckland and Crook Town(?) with huge crowds too, and Ayresome Park packed out for a replay. It was high standard, harry Pearson has written some good things about those teams and ‘Hotbed of Soccer’ is a good read too.



    **AV writes: Between 1950 and 1965 only five FA Amateur Cup finals DIDN’T involve at least one Northern League side.

    1. Thanks for that info AV, somewhere I have a book with all those listings of teams in the Cups, how many finals did Bishop Auckland play in during that period, they must have been almost ever-present? When you think of the talent that has come out the North East it is quite astounding.

      **AV writes: In the 1950s Bishops were in seven finals in a row (three of them against Crook) and won four of them.

    2. I was at the replay of the FA Amateur Cup final between Crook Town and Hounslow in 1962 – 4-0 to Crook Town, 18,000+ crowd and my first visit to Ayresome Park which led to my inextricable connection to the Boro, uplifting and infuriating in equal measure as they have been over the last 50 years, but nonetheless my Boro…and all because of an Amateur Cup tie…

  5. I have a photograph of the South Bank team with the FA Amateur Cup somewhere, it has my Godfather’s Dad in it as he played for them. No idea which year it was taken though.

    **AV writes: South Bank won in 1913, beating Oxford City 1-0 in a replay (held at Bishop Auckland)

  6. In the 1950,s Bishop Auckland won The Amateur Cup three years in a row. They also had great success in The F.A Cup, beating Ipswich and reaching the 5th. round before losing to York City. I saw the Cup Final replay with Crook Town, at Ayresome Park–we wuz robbed.

  7. Changing tack from the ongoing NL discussion, we seem to have the makings of a reconciliation with Adomah. Assuming he doesn’t get farmed out on loan or summat, I wonder how real and how permanent it will be?

    Me dad always said that, after Mannion’s big bust up with the club, when circumstances eventually forced him to return, the Golden Boy was never the same. Granted he was in the twighlight of his career but me dad reckoned you could tell Mannion was going through the motions. There was a big difference before-and-after. He said it all felt grudging and his heart wasn’t in it.

    It would be a shame if Albert’s excellent career with us became tainted in that way. Assuming the bone of contention is what we think it is, there is no doubt that Adomah was at fault. I was at the game and it was clear that he had lost concentration and left the player free to create the equaliser. Fans were shouting at him even before the goal went in.

    Let’s hope he is big enough to say ‘mea culpa’ (or the Ghanaian version) and get back to winning promotion.

    As a student of human nature, it will be fascinating to see how it pans out.

    1. nikeboro –

      I think today’s phrase when holding one’s hands up is ‘My bad’!
      I agree it now needs forgetting about, whichever way you look at it, its in Alberts interest to get back in the team and play well.

  8. Got me all misty eyed with this talk about the Northern League. Given my Blog ID, you can appreciate how much it saddened me to see the demise of South Bank. We have to remember that the NL provided many great players in the past. Unfortunately, those days are well and truly gone. Local talent is picked up from school now but, percentage wise, I would imagine very few of them will emerge as Stars in the PL due to the current structure.

    I’m just grateful that most of my years following Boro have been before TV and the millionaires took over the game.


  9. I think it speaks volumes about the Northern League that when Manchester united were in a hole after losing most of their team in fifty eight they asked Bobby Hardisty the Bishop Auckland central defender, I think, to play for them. He helped them out of a hole but wouldn’t turn professional, he was a headmaster and didn’t want to change his lifestyle, but what a complement both to the player and the league he played in.

  10. All this talk about the NL has got me wishing I’d had a slice of it. Mind you, I think its heyday was coming to an end by the time I watched my first Boro game in ’61.

    I used to go and watch Stockton (none of that ‘Norton’ abomination) at the old Victoria Ground in the 60s but I think they were lower than the NL in the pyramid by then. I was well aware they had once been a decent team and won at Wembley but you wouldn’t have known it when I saw them.

    **AV writes: Stockton won the Amateur Cup three times and the Northern League time five times. They switched to the North East League after the war and tried to rejoin the NL later but were refused and drifted around between leagues for a while. They folded in 1975.

  11. I worked with a chap in the Boro who also said he’d made the numbers up for MUFC after the Munich crash. Tragically, he died in his car after suffering a heart attack. He was parked up about to go to a game at Ayresome Park.

  12. That’s brought some memories flooding back AV, good piece. Funnily enough I’d been thinking about Stan Cummins for some reason a couple of weeks ago along the “wonder what happened to” lines. I never knew he ended up at Norton. He was a favourite of mine…the original little fella!

  13. The Northern League had many players of professional quality, but because of the £18-20 a week maximum wage limit in the 1950s they could make more money by staying in their jobs and picking up lucrative “expenses” as “amateurs”.

    The Bishops were a crack team, most of whom could (and some of whom did) walk into any First Division club of its day.

    Their legendary goalie Harry Sharratt had few equals in the professional game. He was once booked for building a snowman in his goal area one Boxing day because he had so little to do. He could often be seen sitting on top of the crossbar and was known for throwing out the ball to an opponent to give himself something to do when the Bishops were well in front. He was one of a number who went to Man Utd. after Munich.

    I remember a classy midfielder Seamus O’ Connell going from the Bishops straight into the Boro team for a wonderful game against Newcastle in1953. He scored and Boro won a classic thanks to two George Hardwick penalties into the Holgate End.

    Seamus went on to play for Chelsea, where he scored a hat-trick on his debut, an indication of the quality of the amateurs of the day.

    I remember seeing three Amateur Cup-Final replays at Ayresome Park in quick succession in the 1950s. They attracted huge crowds. One game between Bishops and Crook Town was a second replay, and over 30,000 people were there. Over the three games over 200,000 fans attended.

    Amateur football in those days wasn’t always a question of local lads making good. It was widely criticised in its higher echelons as being professional in everything but name and there was a certain amount of resentment at the sleazy nature of players hanging on to their amateur status , but finding a wad of notes in their boots at the end of the game. They were widely known as ‘shamateurs’.

    Great days, though.

  14. Really interesting piece AV. I didn’t ever get to watch any of the NL sides, but with the first fixture against MK Dons coming up I do remember living in Leighton Buzzard and going to watch Leighton Buzzard Town play (the real) Milton Keynes FC in the Southern Midland Premier Division during the late 1980s. You would get up to 2,000 and more for this fixture which had intense local rivalry.

    I struggle with the whole concept of MK Dons and am in the camp that considers it a betrayal of the roots of football by the FA and Football League for every allowing Wimbledon AFC to have been treated like a franchise and wind up in Milton Keynes.

    AFC WImbledon have demonstrated that it is very possible for a club to come right up through the lower leagues and on into the Football League. How much more commendable would have been the achievement of Mr. Winkelman investing in one of the several local clubs around Milton Keynes and seeing them achieve even a fraction of what AFC Wimbledon have in their short existence.

    I am looking forward to Boro beating MK Dons by three and hopefully more on Saturday and that they (MKD)will not survive in the Championship after this season.

    Also hope Uncle Albert will feature from the start.

  15. Excellent from AV and Len, very much enjoyed reading, thank you..

    I was always struck by the amateur Cup final attendances at the old Wembley, always a sell out, just shows how important the game is at all levels

  16. Something for AV to listen to. David Cameron is being interviewed at Headingley on Test Match Special on the radio.

    Cricket at the home of county champions Yorkshire with a Tory Prime Minister, just the ticket. You can even listen to it on your lappie.


  17. The first job I had as a charge hand at Lackenby was to give Willy Wigham a job. I was star struck mind. He had hands like shovels.

    1. There’s a coincidence. Apart from the fact I also worked at Lackenby (my last of what me dad would have called ‘real job’) in the early 70s, I also worked with Willie.

      I worked weekends for Group 4 while I was doing my degree in the early 70s. I was made redundant (now that was a recession) by BSC, out of the blue and 6 weeks before my finals :-(. Already (foolishly) married with a baby (even more foolishly), rather than go on the dole I worked full time for Group 4 for a few months until I got fixed up with a job.

      There I was, working in some site in Darlington, when who should walk in but Willie Whigham, gaunt features unmistakable. Having stood behind his goal for years, it felt odd to be making him a cuppa only a couple of years after he’d retired.

      This was obviously the days before footballers made fortunes but, nevertheless, I was surprised to see him doing that work. I once worked 98 hours and still didn’t pick up £40.

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